I first heard of Bruce Goff in 1959 when I was a student at a graduate school on the desert near Taliesin West, the winter compound of Frank Lloyd Wright and his associates. I went there often hoping to meet Mr. Wright and get him to autograph my copy of The Natural House, his book on how to build a small inexpensive house, but he died before I got the chance. However, I got to know some of his associates and heard them talking about the new king of extreme, Oklahoma architect Bruce Goff, who officed and lived in Wright’s only skyscraper, the Price Tower in Bartlesville.
Wright also designed the houses for Harold Price, Sr. and Harold Price, Jr. but another son, Joe Price, picked Goff – mainly due to Goff’s mind-boggling Bavinger House – to design an extreme home for Joe’s extensive oriental print collection. Sadly, Joe’s house was destroyed in a fire, but not before his priceless art work was moved to Goff’s Pavilion for Japanese Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
After graduation, I returned home and began dreaming of a house based on Wright’s organic philosophy called Usonian, which deciphers as a small, inexpensive house that blends with nature, as opposed to the inorganic International Style popular in Europe. Then, in 1964, while still in my late twenties, my dreams came true because of a series of coincidences related to Goff’s move from Wright’s Price Tower to the New York Life Building, down the hall from my father’s law firm, in Kansas City, my home town. The coincidence was compounded by Goff officing with Ted Seligson, a modern architect I knew through a mutual friend who headed a real estate company selling lots in a new housing development. So, after the buzz died down a little, I got up the nerve and went to see Goff, full well expecting him to refuse the problems of such a small commission. How wrong I was.
Goff was a big guy with a big smile who listened more than he talked as I babbled on that the house should be like my childhood screened-in porch where size depended on how far you could see and you felt you were outdoors more than indoors. Inside I wanted an open floor plan for the living area and hoped the sleeping area could be opened as well – like the Japanese did with moveable Shoji screens – so the small rooms could become one large room overlooking a Zen garden
“Seems like you want a Wright-inspired Usonian house a la Bruce Goff,” he said,showing me the drawings of the amazing Nicol and Hyde houses, his two local commissions under construction. Goff, who didn’t drive, suggested we go check out the three houses that influenced me, plus my old screened-in porch.
First on my list was a Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian house that was so organic nobody knew it was there, it blended so well with the land. The next two houses were in the International Style that didn’t blend in at all, but rather jumped out of the ground, especially the house by Bauhas boy wonder Marcel Breuer with its two enormous elevated overhangs. The Bixby House by Edward Tanner used stucco over concrete to create a streamlinedversion of a Le Corbusier. Finally, we went to see the porch of my childhood. It was screened on three sides and overlooked a small city park. Goff spent the longest time looking out at kids playing in the park and then said he knew what I wanted: a small inexpensive Usonian house that was as big as all outdoors.
In less than a month I purchased a lot from my real estate friend and Goff designed a house that was a big surprise. It wasn’t a rectangle like my all-time favorites: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Willey House, 1949; Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, 1950; or Philip Johnson’s The Glass House, 1949. It had a triangular floor plan with floor-to-ceiling glass on all three exterior walls. Inside, the interior walls folded out of the way so the house could be opened into one large room with big views in all directions. In the center of the house was a triangular stone fireplace that was open on all three sides. Goff’s design was my dream come true.
Goff’s plan was a tribute to Wright’s Usonian concept: a concrete slab put the house directly on the ground, the siding was natural wood and the roof, with its enormous overhang for the carports, gave the house a ground-hugging low silhouette. Wright would have loved this house.
Because of the overhang for the carports, we could not get the price down from the few contractors who seemed interested. However, the worst news was the developer suddenly decided the house would be “too dangerous for the neighborhood.” Goff chuckled and said he’d never before had a house called “dangerous.” They returned my money and we were asked to leave the development.I fumed awhile over being kicked out but quicly found and bought another lot from a different developer. Only one week later Goff and I were summoned to his office and given our walking papers. Again, Goff’s design was considered “too dangerous for the neighborhood.” It seemed someone didn’t want the house to be built anywhere at all. Goff insisted that the next lot have a clear title, free from design approval by developers.
I found and bought the third lot with a clear title from the local power and light company when it dismantled its sub-station. Unlike the other two lots, this lot wasn’t level and a concrete slab would not work. Goff had to abandon the old plan and design a new house. Once again, the new design was a total surprise.
Inside, the 1200 square foot plan was basically the same as the first house but outside nothing was the same. The reason Goff abandoned Wright’s organic style for the stark minimalism of the International Style was due entirely to the lot not being level. Instead, a basement foundation was needed and Goff designed a basement garage for the cars that eliminated the need for carports or roof overhang. To prevent rain water erosion, Goff designed a foundation smaller than the house, thus creating a continuous cantilever which made the house lose its connection to the ground and float free like Wright’s Fallingwater.
The only contractor bold enough to bid on the new house was an old friend, Mike Rothstein, who was building the other two Goff houses. Without Mike, these three houses might never have been built. His carpenters took pride in working on and dreaming about a house they could actually afford. Later that pride would save the day.
After work I would go by the house to talk with Mike and Goff about the next day’s work schedule. But something happened one day that finally put a face on who was trying to stop us: a developer I named Ellsworth Toohey after the heavy from The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand’s tribute to Frank Lloyd Wright. I had gone by the site after work as usual, but something was different this time ... where were all the carpenters? I never saw Mike so mad or Goff so perplexed. Mike told me the carpenters were being held at the police station for resisting a court order to stop construction and he left to meet with union officials to get his crew released. Goff just shook his head in disbelief and told me the developer got a court order to halt construction because we didn’t get the developer’s permission on the design.
So, early the next morning I went to the Plaza offices of the developer, Mr. T. He knew who I was as I, unannounced, barged into the office of the largest, most respected developer in the city. There were two reasons why I thought he would change his mind, but first I wanted to know what gave him the right to judge our design and stop construction? As Lord of the Manor, he said he had the design rights for the entire development and the duty to stop anything that would be “too dangerous for the neighborhood.” Then I realized where the other two developers got that phrase. Mr. T. also disliked the other two Goff houses but said that large, expensive houses, no matter how strange, were a welcome addition to any neighborhood ... and that my little glass box looked more like a drive-thru bank than a house, so why should he change his mind?
First off, I told him, he never had title to the land. We bought the lot from the power and light company and were never part of his development or its design restrictions. He then realized he had no legal right to do what he had done. The second reason was something else he didn’t know. When the union carpenters, who loved the design, learned the cops were shutting them down because the developer didn’t like the design, they resisted the stupidity enough to get hauled off to the police station and charged with a crime for defending my right to build my house on my land. And because of the awful way the carpenters were treated, the union was going on strike at Mr. T’s unfinished Oak Park Mall.
To stop the strike, Mr. T. had to give up any right to judge Goff’s design ... only I had that right ... and drop the resisting arrest charges so the crew could get back to work. Mr. T. agreed to all the conditions and that night Goff and I celebrated the victory of originality over cookie-cutter conformity. The next day the crew was back as if nothing had happened. The rest of construction went smoothly and was finished on time.
Goff told me when the house was completed that he had never had so much trouble over a design before and wondered if this “big little house on the prairie” was worth the fight. And then he added, only time will tell.
Goff said that only time would tell if the house was worth all the trouble it took to get it built. Well, after all these years, all I can say is: a thing of beauty is a joy forever. My wife, Jody, and I love sitting in our glass house watching the seasons change. It’s great to be outside in the comfort of your own home.
When our children got bigger, we asked Goff to design a three-bedroom addition for them but the design had code problems. Anyway, the kids loved the open floor plan and communal living and still think of the house as party central.
Jody knew this house needed flowers, both inside and out. She became a Master Gardener and I built a plant room in the basement so we could have flowers upstairs year-round. It’s like living in a blooming greenhouse. We love it here and plan to grow old together, holding hands, listening to tunes, getting high on Mother Nature and watching the world go by.